In a series of major changes at ABC News, Diane Sawyer will be stepping down from her role as anchor of "World News" after nearly five years on the job and will be succeeded by David Muir, the network announced Wednesday.
In addition, George Stephanopoulos, co-host of the top-rated "Good Morning America" and host of the network's Sunday public affairs program "This Week," has been appointed to the newly created position of chief anchor for ABC News. The new lineup will begin after Labor Day.
According to a note sent by ABC News President James Goldston to staff Wednesday, Sawyer, 68, will continue to report for the network "for many years to come" but will shift to focus on "original reporting, big ideas and interviews for all platforms."
Muir and Stephanopoulos had both been considered likely candidates to succeed Sawyer, whenever she decided to step down from "World News." The division of labor represents a somewhat unprecedented arrangement — one that acknowledges Stephanopoulos' leadership position within the news division and his pivotal role in the network's lucrative morning show, but one that also could be seen as undercutting Muir's status as "World News" anchor.
On Wednesday, some media observers suggested that the moves mark the further diminishment of the once-vaunted role of the evening news anchor.
"It seems to me the message ABC is sending its viewers by having Muir be junior to Stephanopoulos is that if you want serious news, don't look to the evening news," said TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall.
Kentucky native Sawyer joined ABC News in 1989 and succeeded Charles Gibson at "World News" in 2009, after an extended period of turnover that began with the illness and death of long-time anchor Peter Jennings in 2005. Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas were installed as co-anchors in December of that year, a short-lived arrangement that abruptly ended when Woodruff was injured during a reporting trip to Iraq in January 2006.
Gibson became sole anchor in May 2006 but stepped down just three years later. By then, Sawyer had been co-anchor at "Good Morning America" for 10 years and was one of the network's best-known news personalities.
For a short time before Katie Couric's much-hyped stint at "CBS Evening News" concluded in 2011, two out of the big three network news anchors were women, but Muir's ascension will mark a return to the status quo of solo white male anchors at the legacy broadcasters. (María Elena Salinas remains a co-anchor with Jorge Ramos at Univision.)
Under Sawyer, the broadcast, which is No. 2 in the ratings overall with a season-to-date average of 8.1 million viewers, has nearly caught up to ratings leader "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams," narrowing the overall gap to under a million viewers. It also easily outperforms "CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley."
In recent months, Sawyer has also edged out Williams in the all-important 25- to 54-year-old demographic, winning May sweeps for the first time in seven years by a margin of 106,000 viewers in the age group.
But Sawyer has also been criticized for a perceived shift toward softer news and so-called infotainment — what Tyndall has decried as the "Disneyfication" of "World News."
"ABC has radically cut back on the amount of hard news and increased its coverage of weather, human interest, celebrities, social media, show business and sports," Tyndall said, though he noted that the change really did not take place until several years into Sawyer's reign at the broadcast network.
Despite her ratings successes, Sawyer began to express interest in a new role to Disney/ABC Television Group's co-president, Ben Sherwood (then president of ABC News), late last year, according to Goldston.
Muir, 40, who is the weekend anchor of "World News" and co-anchor of the newsmagazine "20/20," will take over the weekday broadcast on Sept. 2. He will also continue to anchor "20/20" with Elizabeth Vargas. Though he has been with the network since 2003, beginning as anchor of the overnight program "World News Now," Muir is not as well known as some of his predecessors were at the time of their appointment to the anchor chair.
In his newly created position, Stephanopoulos will be the lead anchor for live coverage of breaking news and other major events and will also continue at "This Week" and "Good Morning America."
The 53-year-old got his start as a Democratic strategist before moving into journalism and is seen as adept at both serious news as well as the lighter fare that has become a "Good Morning America" hallmark.
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